Sunday, February 1, 2015

Just a Wall - Chapter Sixteen

Gitla had received my note, and we were both very happy that we figured out a way to keep in touch. I felt bad that I couldn’t help her with supplies in any meaningful way, but with each note I did include a few aspirin tablets and a piece of candy. The ghetto is fully enclosed now, with the exception of one gate that’s guarded by armed soldiers. Max told me that some of the Jewish resistance fighters in the ghetto are still finding ways to make contact with the Polish resistance. The information coming from inside the ghetto isn’t good though.

The problems we had outside the ghetto seemed like minor inconveniences compared to what the Jews were dealing with. There was only one well in the ghetto that had potable water, and their food rations were tighter than ours. They had no medicines to fight the epidemics that seem to hit one right after the other. Gitla’s brother Zalman died. He injured his arm while working on the new wall, and it became infected. They weren’t able to amputate the arm before the infection spread beyond the original injury. Once again, the family had to carry the body of a loved one out to the street for pickup. 1941 is not off to a good start.

Peter showed up at our apartment this past Saturday for our weekly lunch with bruises and a broken finger that he refused to explain to me. “Don’t worry,” he kept telling me. Of course I’m worried, but I also know that I can’t tell him what to do anymore than he can tell me what to do. The problem was that I had been keeping a secret from him: my friendship with Gitla. Why shouldn’t I expect him to keep secrets as well?


I bundled up a new note for Gitla and went to deliver it. No need to carry a bag with me today. The abandoned buildings have been picked clean of all useful items. I quickly tossed my note over the wall, picked up the note Gitla had tossed over to my side, and hurried away. I planned to read it after I get home from the café. Maria was already at the café when I arrived.

“Where’s Tomas today?” I asked Maria.

“I don’t know,” she replied, obviously trying to hold back her tears. “My father has forbidden me from seeing him.”

“Why?” I asked, taking her hand. “Did he give you a reason?”

Peter arrived, giving me a kiss on the cheek, and sat down. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Maria’s father won’t let her see Tomas anymore.”

“That’s wrong. Why would he do that?”

“Well, my father finally explained why he had been acting so strangely toward Tomas. He discovered something a few months ago that prompted him to make it difficult for Tomas and I to see each other. He hoped that we'd break up on our own. Since that didn’t work, he decided that he had no choice but to break us up himself.”

Our tea and cookies arrived. I quickly poured the tea and Maria took a sip, her cup rattling against the saucer as she picked it up. She took a deep breath and continued.

“Somehow, a few months ago, my father saw a list of Polish residents who have partial Jewish ancestry. Tomas’s maternal grandmother was on the list, shown as being one-quarter Jewish. In the eyes of the Germans, that’s the same as being one hundred percent Jewish. Neither Tomas nor his mother is considered to be Jewish, but my father decided that he didn’t want to take any chances. That’s when he began trying to keep us apart. ‘The last straw,’ as he put it, was a few days ago when Tomas' grandmother was taken away in a late-night raid. She was forced into a truck along with many other people, presumably the others on that list. His grandfather was severely beaten trying to save her and wasn’t expected to survive his injuries.”

“Oh my god, Maria, that’s terrible!” I exclaimed. “Have you spoken to Tomas at all?”

“Just briefly. My father allowed one last phone call. Tomas didn’t even know he had Jewish ancestors. It wasn’t something the family talked about."

 “I think I know why my father didn’t initially tell me what was happening,” Maria continued. “You know that he has reported several people for hiding Jews?” Maria asked. Peter and I nodded. “Well, I think he didn’t tell me in part because he was trying to protect me, but also because he knew I’d tell Tomas that his grandmother was on the list, and Tomas would have tried to hide her or help her escape to a safer place. My father is helping the Germans round up Jews, and he doesn’t care that one name on the list was someone we knew. He’s just a bastard!”

I had no idea how to respond to that. Neither did Peter. Maria seemed different after telling us the story, calmer somehow. She even smiled as she looked up at the sun and closed her eyes, taking comfort in its warmth. We enjoyed the rest of our tea and cookies in silence, watching people coming and going. As I looked at their faces, I wondered which ones were carrying secrets that have yet to be discovered. I put my hand in my pocket to clutch Gitla’s note, hoping that my secret would remain hidden for as long as I want it to remain so.

A light tap on my shoulder startled me.

“Are you Helena?” whispered a small voice.

I turned to see a young girl in a wool coat that looked as if it would turn to dust in a strong wind. All of her hair was tucked up into her knit hat.

“Yes, I’m Helena. Do I know you?”

She looked at Maria and Peter nervously and leaned in closer to me to whisper, “I’m Rosa, Gitla’s sister.”

My jaw dropped, and I felt like all of the blood rushed from my face.

“Rosa? How did you get here?”

“Who is this girl?” Maria asked. She leaned in and whispered, “She looks like a filthy Jew.”

Maria understood that the look I gave her was meant to shut her up. She looked embarrassed for having made such a comment and mouthed an apology to me.

“Um, I have to go now,” I said. "Can I take the rest of these cookies? Maria, I’ll see you next week. Not a word to anyone, okay? Peter, walk me home.”

I handed Rosa the cookies, grabbed her hand, and Peter and I rushed her off.

“Who is this girl?” Peter asked.

“Let’s get home first. I’ll explain everything later.” I felt as if everyone on the street was looking at us, walking along with this little Jewish girl, but when I looked around, I saw that no one was paying any attention to us. Rosa finished off all the cookies by the time we got home, looking very content, not scared at all. My heart felt like it was about to leap out of my chest. When we got into the apartment, I fell back against the closed door. I hadn’t been this scared since that day the soldiers were chasing me.

“Rosa, here, sit down. How did you get out of the ghetto?”

“The ghetto!” Peter exclaimed. “What the hell have you been doing, Helena?”

“Peter, I promise I’ll tell you everything later. Let me process this first.”

I reached over to remove Rosa’s hat but she placed her hand on her head. “No,” she said. “Gitla told me to keep my hat on. I have lice. She said that you’ll know what to do.”

“Okay,” I said. “We’ll take care of that. How did you get out? Did Gitla come with you?”

“Gitla couldn’t get out. There are still some openings along the wall small enough for young children to fit through. Gitla is too big. Only I could fit. She told me where to find you on Friday afternoons and that she sent you a note telling you that I’d be coming.”

The note! I pulled it from my coat pocket and quickly unraveled it. Yes, Gitla wrote that she was sending Rosa to me and that she trusted me to take good care of her. The time was right to make a move like this. There wouldn’t be many more opportunities. Life in the ghetto was getting more dangerous every day. Rosa had head lice but is otherwise healthy. Knowing that Rosa had a chance to survive would give the family comfort. She signed the note "Love Always, G."

I looked at Rosa. Her eyes are the same as Gitla’s, but her facial features are softer. If not for her coloring, she might fit in with the Polish population, if no one looked too closely. The scarf she was wearing is one that I had given Gitla. I noticed a dark band on her coat sleeve, probably from the Jewish armband she had to wear.

“Let’s get you cleaned up. You need a bath with strong soap to take care of the lice, and those clothes will have to go in the incinerator.”

I found a trash bag in the kitchen and a pair of scissors, and scooted Rosa into the bathroom while Peter set a large pot of water on the stove to boil so Rosa’s bath wouldn’t be too cold. We rarely had hot water from the faucet anymore.

I began to fill the bathtub while Rosa removed her clothes and placed them in the trash bag. I didn’t mean to look at her, and I had to hide my surprise when I did. She was so thin. She removed her knit hat last. So much hair. I was surprised it all fit in the hat. It was dark like Gitla’s, but not as curly. Unfortunately, her hair is matted and knotted beyond saving.

“I’m sorry, Rosa, but I’m afraid we’ll have to cut off most of your hair. This way we can get your head good and clean.”

Rosa looked down and began to sob, probably just the stress of the day catching up with her. I reached out and lifted her face, looked her straight in the eye, and said, “I promise your hair will grow back to be just as beautiful as it was before the war. In the meantime, I have lots of hair clips and ribbons we can use to make you look pretty. Okay?”

Rosa nodded, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. I leaned her head over the bag of clothes so the hair would fall straight into the bag. It was a messy haircut, but we’ll fix it later. Peter knocked on the door. I held up a towel in front of Rosa so he could come in and dump the pot of hot water into the tub. Rosa climbed into the tub, and I gave her soap and shampoo.

“I’ll be back in few minutes. Scrub hard all over your body until you’re squeaky clean.”

Peter was standing in the middle of the kitchen with his arms crossed, waiting for me, when I returned from the incinerator chute. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

I took his hand and led him to the sofa. “Okay. First, I’d like to say that I was not keeping this secret because I don’t trust you. It’s just something I needed to have for myself. I had to tell Kate a couple of months ago after something happened, and she's the only person who knows.” I looked him straight in the eye. “Do you believe me?” He nodded. “I’ll be right back. Let me check on Rosa.”

Rosa looked so small and fragile in the bathtub. “Did you give your head a good scrub?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Well, let me do it one more time just to make sure those nasty head lice are gone.” I poured some shampoo on her hair and scrubbed, making extra lather just for fun. “Are you hungry?” I asked.

“Yes, very.”

“It’s almost dinner time and we’ll have soup and crackers. My father will be home soon. I think you’ll like him.”

“Will he be angry that I’m here?”

“Who could be angry at a cutie pie like you?” I joked, dabbing some bubbles on her nose. Rosa giggled. Actually, I didn’t know how my father would react. This situation put us all at risk.

While Rosa toweled off, I went to find some clothes that might fit her. I told Peter that I would explain everything in detail when my father got home because he deserves to know the whole story, too. I put together a makeshift outfit for Rosa, but we have a lot of sewing to do tomorrow for her to have clothes that fit. The baggy clothes made her look even thinner. I wish we had some milk.

Rosa handed me a small, flat package.

“What’s this?” I asked.

Rosa shrugged. “I don’t know but Gitla told me that it’s very important.”

I carefully opened the package. It contains two pieces of paper and some photos.

“That’s my family,” Rosa said as she began to cry.

“Come here,” I said, putting an arm around her. “Tell me about the photos.”

I picked up a pencil and as Rosa identified each person, I wrote the name on the back of the photo. Rosa seemed to be a few years younger in the group photo, so I wrote "1937" on that one as an estimated date. I think it’s important to get this information now. I didn’t say anything to Rosa, but we really don’t know how long it might be before she’ll see her family again, and her memory could fade.

After we finished with the photos, I unfolded the first piece of paper. It was a list of all living family members, with their parents’ names and dates of birth. The list includes the names and last known addresses of cousins in America, Palestine and Australia. Gitla must have figured that this information would be important later if the family is further separated.

“I’ll make a copy of this list so we can hide it in two different places. This is very important information about your family.”

Rosa nodded, wiping her nose with the back of her hand.

“Why don’t you go into the top drawer of my dresser and take a handkerchief. Every young lady should have one handy.” Rosa nodded and went into my room.

I unfolded the second piece of paper, the one with my name on it:

My Dear Friend H, I hope my sister and this letter find you well. I’m sorry for not being able to give you much notice of her arrival, but I made up my mind to do this and knew I had to move quickly. I believe I know you well enough to know that you’ll do your best to care for Rosa. Life in the ghetto is getting scarier by the day, and there are rumors that are making us wonder if we have any hope of surviving. At least we can save the youngest member of the family. Rosa is sweet and smart and has a bright future. Unfortunately, I need you to explain some bad news to Rosa. I told her this is a temporary situation. I didn’t let her say goodbye to our parents because I’m not telling them until she’s gone. They would have tried to stop me. I’ll be breaking the news to them around the time you’ll be reading this note. Please tell Rosa that we all love her very much. Once she is past the shock of the situation, ask her about the family and write down the stories she tells you so she can remember us later. I trust you to act in her best interest and to send me updates for as long as we can continue our current method of communication. Your Friend Forever, G

“Are you alright Helena?” Rosa asked.

I hadn’t see her come back in the room, and I was in tears. I quickly folded up the letter and placed it in my pocket.

“Yes, I’m fine,” I said, wiping my face. “See…fine.”

“Why are you crying?”

“I was just remembering something sad. I’m OK now. Did you find a handkerchief?”

She nodded and held it up to show me. “Ah, the one with the pink flowers. My mother made that for me when I was a little girl. It’s yours now.”

I looked at her hair. It was dry now, and I could see where it needed some trimming. We went into the bathroom and took care of it. Her hair was so short that I thought it would be best for her to wear a scarf until it grows in a little. Peter had heard Max come home, so he went over to talk to him. I asked him not to mention Rosa and invite Max and Kate over for dinner. He agreed to keep them in their apartment until he heard my father come home.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Just a Wall - Chapter Fifteen

Friday is my favorite day of the week. I’m still not being given any courier assignments, so the only fresh air I get is when I go to the market each day, and Friday afternoons when I visit Gitla at the wall and then meet Peter, Maria, and Tomas at the café. Over the past few weeks, Gitla and I have become good friends. We have a lot in common, especially our love of history. She plans to attend the university after the war to study archaeology. I had thought about becoming a history teacher if I didn’t marry right after graduation, but archaeology sounds much more exciting. We agreed to try to study and work together after the war, if Peter doesn’t mind my traveling occasionally.

Gitla told me all about her family. Her father, Szymon, is a shoemaker, so without a supply of new shoes, there is plenty of repair work for him in the Jewish ghetto. Yes, ghetto. That’s the word Gitla is using now. Her father trained her two brothers, Zalman and Ruben, in the same trade, and they are all kept very busy.

The boys spend a lot of their time combing through the trash looking for any materials that can be used to patch holes or replace broken laces. It isn’t easy. Because all of the supplies needed for daily life are so scarce, people rarely discard anything useful. Unfortunately, the best source of supplies is the death of another resident. They have to get there fast, though.

Gitla’s mother, Freda, is a skilled seamstress, so she’s also able to earn money for the family. Gitla’s day job is to scrounge for any scraps of fabric and thread her mother can use in her work. Freda had tried to teach Gitla to sew, but it just didn’t take. Gitla laughs at that because she isn’t a very good cook either.

Gitla has a younger sister, Rosa, who shows promise as a seamstress, so their mother gives Rosa some of the smaller sewing jobs. She’s too young to be out on the streets anyway. Her older sister, Sarah, was already married. Her husband, Meyer, joined the Polish army in 1939 and was killed on the first day of the German invasion. He never met their daughter, Zelda, who was born two days later. Zelda was sickly from birth and survived only a few weeks.

Gitla also has an older brother, Avrum, who escaped east when the Russian army evacuated. He planned to join the Russian army to fight the Germans, but with no mail, there’s no way to know what he’s doing or if he’s safe.

There have been a lot of changes in the world over the past few months. Germany conquered most of western Europe in May and June, and the Japanese continued their march through Asia and the Pacific nations. We heard on the radio last week that Italy, Germany, and Japan have signed a cooperation agreement. With the changes in Europe, the flow of news to Poland has been almost completely cut off. Peter’s father isn’t getting as many shipments from his suppliers. We still have some black market contacts, but it’s now more important than ever to ration the supplies we already have. The only place to eat meat is at a restaurant but the prices have increased to ridiculous levels.

We listen to the radio, which now has to be hidden, for a few minutes each evening. The Germans have been confiscating radios, so Father built a hamper-like box in the bathroom from some scraps of wood he found in an alley. We keep some towels tossed on top of the radio just in case the Germans raid our building. The news on the radio is always disappointing, but we have to listen anyway. England is all alone now. There was one report that the Americans might be sending them supplies and equipment, but I wonder why America hasn’t entered the war. I don’t know enough about world politics to understand why.

My figure filled out over the summer, and I can now fit into some of my mother’s clothes. Father moved all of her things into my room. Some of the blouses are loose in the chest though. When I told Peter that was because Mother had larger breasts than I do, he said, “I think yours are just the right size. If they were any larger, I wouldn’t know what to do with them.” He can be such a wise-ass sometimes. Since I don’t need my old clothing anymore, I’ve been bringing one or two items at a time to Gitla. If her family doesn’t need them, they can try to sell them or her mother can use the fabric.

With winter approaching, coal and wood are high on our list of priorities. Max is trying to arrange a trade: old shoes and clothing for coal and wood. If we really need to, we can sell or trade Mother’s jewelry, but I don’t think any of us is ready to part with that yet.

Father recently put me in charge of the supplies. I feel very proud that he trusts me. I don’t want to let him down, but I also feel the need to help Gitla however I can. We’ve already begun rationing certain things. The coffee and tea won’t last much longer. We probably should have limited our use on those months ago. Now we’ve cut back to one cup for each of us on Saturdays and Sundays only. Another reason I enjoy going to the café on Fridays; I can have a nice cup of tea.

Mother had gone overboard hoarding certain items. We have more cinnamon and vanilla extract than we could ever use, especially with the milk and egg shortages. She probably didn’t count on that. I’m thinking of asking a local bakery if they want to buy those items. I did give some of the cinnamon to Gitla, thinking they might be able to flavor their meager food supplies. I also gave her a couple of bottles of aspirin. They have few, if any, medications in the ghetto. I want to keep a large surplus, though, because Max says aspirin might have a high street value if the war continues much longer. The only other items I felt comfortable sharing are the sour ball candies I had purchased. Gitla and her family really enjoy the treats. Father, Max, and Peter still don’t know about Gitla, so I can’t tell them what I’m doing. Sometimes I feel like I’m lying to them by not letting them know, but I’m certain that I’m doing the right thing.


On my way to meet Gitla one Friday, I heard “Hello, Helena,” as I stepped out into the street. I looked up to see Wanda at her bedroom window. I waved to her and gave her a weak smile. That’s about as much as our relationship has mended over the past year.

Gitla ws already waiting for me. I handed her the few things I could spare that week, and she thanked me several times. I felt bad for not being able to do more, but I had to make sure my family was taken care of first.

“Newspapers! How wonderful!” Gitla exclaimed. “These are as valuable as gold in the ghetto. Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said, taking my hand.

“So, did you have a good week?” I asked. “The weather is turning cooler now. The air just seems cleaner.”

“Well, it hasn’t been a very good week. My Zaide Srul died three days ago. He had been suffering from malnutrition like the rest of us but also contracted dysentery. The end seemed to come too slowly. My mother was so distraught that we couldn’t have a proper funeral. She didn’t get out of bed until this morning.”

Zaide? What’s that?”

Zaide is the Yiddish word for grandfather. Bubbe is for grandmother.”

“Interesting. Those are actually similar to Polish. I’m so sorry to hear about your Zaide. Not to be morbid, but what happened to his body if you couldn’t bury him?”

“There is a cart that come through the ghetto every day to collect the dead bodies. All we could do was carry him down to the street and place his body on the cart when it came by. I don’t know what happens to them afterward, and I’m not sure that I really want to know. There are so many people dying every day that I’m sure the bodies are not being handled with the respect they deserve.”

“That’s sad. Are your other grandparents still living?”

Zaide Srul was married to Bubbe Chaja but she died when I was very young. They're my mother’s parents. My father’s parents, Moshe and Miriam, live with us. They are both in their sixties but relatively healthy. It’s interesting how some people catch every germ in their vicinity, and others are in good health right up until their last breath, dying of old age. What about your grandparents? I don’t remember you mentioning them.”

“Well, my father’s parents Andrej and Emilie are alive and well. They live near my Uncle Jozef, so they spend more time with them. We try to see them every couple of weeks. My other grandmother, Greta, died a few years ago. She’s the one who taught me how to cook, not that there’s much use for those skills now. My Grandpa Nick died last year, shortly after my mother died.”

I realized that I hadn’t told Gitla that story yet. Why, I wondered. It wasn’t a secret, but the subject just hadn’t come up for some reason. I shared it now and surprised myself that I was able to tell the story without weeping.

“I’m very sorry for your loss. I’d like to see a photo of your mother, your entire family, if you have any. It sounds like your Grandpa Nick was quite a character.” She paused for a moment. “The war has touched each of us in different ways. For example, this poor excuse for a wall. The Germans built it to limit our access to the rest of the city, but most of the people who have business outside the wall aren’t really affected by it. If it weren’t for the wall, you and I would never have met. Have you told anyone about our friendship?”

“You’re right. We wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for this stupid wall,” I said, giving the wall a punch. A brick fell off, almost hitting my foot, and we couldn’t keep from laughing. “I guess during times like these we need to latch on to any good fortune that comes our way. I haven’t told anyone about our friendship, not even Peter. I know I can trust him, as well as my father and Max, but I like having this secret to myself. Have you told anyone?”

“My family knows that I have a contact outside the wall, but I only share the details about our meetings with my sister, Rosa. I had to tell someone, and she’s surprisingly good at keeping secrets. I wish we had real schools because Rosa is very smart. In addition to speaking Yiddish and Polish, she is almost fluent in Russian, at age ten, if you can believe it. Zaide Moshe taught her. Of course, she has no use for Russian now, but maybe she will find a use for it in the future.”

“The best time to learn a foreign language is when you’re young. Considering Poland’s past, it’s likely that knowing Russian will be a good thing in the future. First we have to survive this nightmare.” I checked my watch. “I need to go. It’s my regular outing with Peter, Maria, and Tomas at the café. I’ll try to remember to bring some family photos next week. If you have any, I’d like to see them, to put faces to the stories you’ve told me. Is there anything specific that you need me to get for you? I don’t have access to much, but I can always try.”

Gitla thought for a moment. “Buttons! We could use buttons.”

“I think my mother kept a can of extra buttons. I’ll have to keep enough for my family, but I can bring you some.”

“That would be great. I think something as simple as a small bag of buttons will cheer up my mother. It’s the little things in life, right?”

“Absolutely! Have a safe week. See you next Friday.”

“Bye, and don’t forget those photos.”

I gave Gitla a nod and looked around to see if the coast was clear. As usual, this end of the street was very quiet. I had finally stopped looking over my shoulder for soldiers chasing me, but that one close call taught me to be more alert when outdoors. Hopefully, Uncle Jozef will begin giving me courier assignments again. I’ll have to insist instead of waiting. I think Jozef told Father about that day and Father asked him not to give me any new assignments. That isn’t fair. I’m seventeen now, an adult. I should be allowed to take a more active role in the resistance.


Maria and Tomas had arrived at the café already. They’re always early, which makes me feel like I’m always late. I greeted them, sat down, and poured my tea. Maria didn’t even look up. She mindlessly stirred her tea.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Tomas and I were both looking at Maria, waiting for her to tell me, but she just sat there, looking down.

Tomas finally spoke. “I asked Maria’s father for permission for us to become engaged. He said no. When I asked him why, he replied, ‘because I said so,’ and said that he didn’t want to hear any more talk about it.”

Maria began to weep. Tomas pulled her chair closer to his and put an arm around her.

“We don’t want to marry for a few months, in the hopes the war will end and we can have a church wedding. Why won’t he just let us get engaged?” Maria sobbed.

Tomas explained that his parents had given him permission, but until Maria turns eighteen next year she can’t marry without her parents' permission.

Maria’s father has always been an ass. “But wait a minute,” I said. “You need your parents' permission to marry, not to get engaged. Why don’t you just get engaged? It’s not really much different than your relationship now.”

“I think my father is trying to break us up,” Maria said “He never had any objections until recently. If he gets to the phone first and Tomas is calling, he tells Tomas that I’m busy and can’t come to the phone. Even when I leave the house for this weekly café get-together, he asks if I’m meeting Tomas and then shakes his head when I say yes."

"My mother loves Tomas,” she continued, taking his hand in hers. “She thought that maybe my father would see things differently if Tomas made a commitment to me. That’s why we decided to get engaged. We have no idea why he’s suddenly turned against Tomas.”

“Did you try just asking him?”

“My mother did, but he won’t tell her. I’m afraid to ask now. He might lock me away or take some other extreme action.”

“Well, you both know that you're committed to each other. I know it, too, so let’s just consider you two unofficially engaged. One more year and you won’t need your father’s permission to marry. If he won’t accept that, then he’ll have to live with the fact that he missed his only daughter’s wedding.”

Maria took my hand. “Thank you for that Helena. I know you’re right. I just need to figure out how to survive another year in that house.”

“You will. At least your father works a lot. That’ll make it easier.”

I noticed some dark clouds approaching from the west, and the wind picked up, so we hurried to finish our tea before the nasty weather arrives. Maria gave me a big hug and even managed a fake smile that I know was for my benefit. I watched Maria and Tomas walk away, his arm around her and her head resting on his shoulder. Things will work out, I’m sure of it. Maria’s father was acting strangely though. Maybe it’s just the stress of the German occupation. He has some kind of relationship with them, but I’m not sure exactly what it is.

I thought about Peter and me. We’re not in a rush to get married. Maybe next year, when I turn eighteen. Peter’s been dropping hints that he wants to take our relationship to the next level, meaning sex. I don’t think I’m nervous or scared about the physical act of sex. I’m more worried about getting pregnant at a young age. I love Peter, but I have things that I want to do with my life. Gitla and I are going to work on archaeological digs together. A big, fat raindrop landed on my head, and when I instinctively looked up at the sky, another one landed on my cheek. Time to get home.


At Sunday brunch, I took Uncle Jozef aside to ask to give me a more active role in the work he and his "study group" were doing. I don’t know why he, Max, and Peter insist on calling the group by that name. The family knows what they’re doing, at least in general terms. Only the people involved in the details know what’s really being done. This way, if questioned, their families can honestly say that they knew nothing about our covert activities. For additional safety, most of us involved in the movement know very little beyond our individual assignments. The leaders, on the other hand, like Uncle Jozef, know everything. I still don’t feel like telling anyone about my friendship with Gitla, but I’m now beginning to wonder if our connection might be useful to the resistance movement. Gitla told me that large groups of Jews have been rounded up for resettlement or relocated to labor camps. I need to speak to her before telling anyone. For now, Jozef gave me the standard "I’ll think about it."


Monday morning I decided to go over to the abandoned buildings near the wall to see if there was anything useful to be salvaged. Kate had the day off from work, so she came with me. It was the first really cold day of autumn. We decided to wear oversized coats so we could hide anything we might find and look like we’re just bundled up against the cold wind.

The ground level of each building had already been picked clean, but it didn’t look like anyone has bothered with the upper floors yet. The stairs were covered in dust, and there was no evidence of footprints. Some of the staircases were damaged from the bombing, but we were able to make our way safely upstairs by staying close to the wall where we found solid footing.

It’s eerie being on the second floor with the roof and sections of the walls missing, and we wondered if the residents were able to escape to safety.

We gathered up some useful items. I found a small bag of coal and even some extra light bulbs, an item that’s extremely scarce. Kate found a couple of boxes of candles and a case of sardines.

“How did you know about these buildings?” Kate asked me.

“I was just out walking one day and was curious about the wall, so I walked down this street.”

“You shouldn’t be walking around alone in the deserted areas of the city, especially after what happened to your mother. The Germans are just as evil as the Russians.”

“It’s okay,” I said “I’m careful to make sure I’m not being followed.” Suddenly we heard a crashing sound. “I wonder what that is.”

We carefully walked over to the rear window and saw that equipment had been brought in to demolish the wall. The section where Gitla and I meet ws already gone. On the other side of the wall, Jewish laborers were waiting with picks and shovels, presumably to clear the debris, and I could see stacks of bricks. A couple of the workers were mixing mortar.

“Oh no, Gitla,” I whispered to myself. My eyes began to tear up.

“Who is Gitla?” Kate asked. I guess I didn’t whisper as quietly as I thought. “Helena, what’s wrong?”

I shook my head and composed myself. “Let’s finish up and get out of here. I’ll tell you on the way home.”

We hurried to gather the things we'd found, hiding them in our coats and wearing the clothing items over our own clothes so we didn’t have to carry them. In addition to our hidden stash, we each grabbed whatever loose pieces of wood we could find and carefully made our way downstairs. The building we were in was very close to the street corner, so we were able to slip out and quickly turn the corner without anyone seeing us. The soldiers were focused on the wall and the workers.

Kate kept looking over at me, waiting for me to tell her what had upset me so much. I took a deep breath and told her about Gitla. We kept walking, no one paying attention to two young women bundled against the cold, carrying some wood. Before I knew it, we were home. Kate followed me into my apartment.

“I can’t believe you kept that secret for so long. Do you know how dangerous it is for you to be in that part of town alone…and befriending a Jew on the other side of a wall meant to keep her separate from us?”

“Are you mad at me for keeping a secret, taking a chance with my safety, or having a Jewish friend? I hope it’s not the latter because I know you’re better than that.”

“These days having a Jewish friend is taking a chance with your safety. I have no grudge against the Jews. I like Max’s friend Jakov, and I hope if he and his family are on the other side of that wall they’re safe. What if someone had seen you at the wall, and you were arrested, or worse? The Germans could have come for all of us. And what about Gitla’s family? They’re also being put at risk.”

Kate was clearly upset. She began removing the extra layers of clothes she was wearing, but it was as if they were attacking her.

“Kate, sit down for a minute. Take a deep breath. Let’s both take a deep breath. Okay?”

We sat quietly for a few minutes. I was beginning to feel warm with the extra layers of clothes, so I started to remove them. Kate did the same.

 “Maybe we’ll have a chance to go back,” she said. “There are still some things we might need. We’ll have to wait a few days to make sure the soldiers and workers are gone. Hopefully you can make contact with your friend.”

I looked up at Kate, tears in my eyes, “I’d like that. Hopefully the new wall is as poorly constructed as the old one. Oh, and for the record, I never intended to put anyone in danger. Gitla and I met by chance and discovered that we had a lot in common. I consider her to be a good friend whose family needs help, so I helped them.”


Four days. I had to wait four days to find out if Gitla and I can still meet. There was no point in going to the wall until Friday because she wouldn’t be there. I tried to stay busy to keep from worrying--cleaning, reviewing our list of supplies, anything. After two days, I was laughing at myself. I thought Mother was being neurotic when she busied herself with the same tasks I’m doing, but I now understand that she was just trying to focus her attention on things she could control instead of sitting and worrying about the things she couldn’t.

Friday finally arrived but the weather was really bad, rain and wind. Gitla and I normally don’t meet on days like today, but I couldn’t wait any longer. I ran out to the market in the morning. It wasn’t as crowded on bad weather days, so it was easier to purchase the scarcer food items. Today I was lucky enough to buy half a dozen eggs. They weren’t cheap but we needed the protein. I knew Father would approve.

During lunch, I jotted a note to Gitla. If I have to, I’ll toss it over the wall in the hope that she’ll find it. In the note, I called her “G” and signed it “H” and made sure not to mention specific meeting times in case someone else finds the note. I wrapped it into a ball around a small rock, secured it with a rubber band, and drew several red X’s on it to make it more visible. Then I bundled myself up and grabbed a canvas bag in case it was safe for me to go scavenging in those abandoned buildings again. On a day like today, the only people outdoors are those who have to be outdoors.

The street leading to the wall was empty. I ducked into the last building on the left to get out of rain. Through a broken window, I was able to get a look at this new wall. This one was built to last. No holes, and the debris that had provided me with a hiding place while Gitla and I visited has all been cleared away. There’s no way for us to meet face to face. After looking around to make sure the coast was clear, I went to the corner where I used to sit and gently tossed my note over the top of the wall. I wanted it to land in the corner. Just as I turned to walk away, I noticed a ball of paper on the ground.

Can it be?

I slipped it into my pocket and hurried back into the building. The paper was very delicate from being out in the rain, so I had to be careful not to tear it. Yes! It’s a note from Gitla. Great minds do think alike! She had torn a blank page from a book to use as note-paper. Some of the writing had already smudged, so I decided to lay it out on the floor to dry for a few minutes while I went upstairs to look for supplies. I found some more broken pieces of wood and a closet full of clothes and shoes. There were several pairs of fashionable high-heeled shoes, but I knew I had to be smart and take the practical shoes instead. There were also some men’s shoes, hopefully Father or Max’s size, and a few ties and belts.

By the time I got back downstairs, the note had dried a little. Gitla had just scribbled down an account of her week. The Germans were extending the wall now to fully enclose the ghetto. Her brother Zalman has been assigned to the labor crew even though he knows nothing about construction. He’s exhausted at the end of each day. The workers receive a cup of weak coffee in the morning and some broth and bread for lunch, but it wasn’t nearly enough food to give them strength for the work they’re doing. She hopes that my family and I are safe and healthy and thanked me for my friendship and the gifts of food, clothing, and medicine I had brought her.

I hope she’ll come back and find my note so she knows that she isn’t alone, just a little more cut off from the world. I wish I had paper and pencil with me now to write another note saying that. I’ll have to wait until next week before I’ll know whether she received my note. That damn wall isn’t going to keep us apart, at least not as long as I can do something about it. I carefully folded the note, placed it in my pocket, picked up my bag, checked the street and hurried home.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Just a Wall - Chapter Fourteen

Saturday afternoon Father and I are in the sitting room quietly reading. Max and Kate burst into the apartment laughing. I couldn’t help but smile at them. They made a great couple. Max walked over to me and held out the bag he was holding.

“Helena, I have a gift for you.”

I took the bag and opened it carefully, expecting something to jump out at me.

“Chicken? Two chickens? Where did you get fresh chickens?” I asked. A few months ago, who would have thought that the sight of a chicken would make me giddy.

“We’re celebrating tonight,” Max said, motioning Kate to come over. He put his arm around her, but before he could say anything else, Kate held up her hand for us to see her engagement ring. She was bouncing up and down, trying to contain her joy, but she wasn’t doing a very good job. We wrapped our arms around each other, both of us bouncing now. Max wrapped his arms around both of us and began bouncing too.

Even Father joined in. “This is wonderful news,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier for you. We need to toast. Wait here.” He disappeared into his bedroom and returned with a bottle of wine. “I told your mother that case of wine would come in handy,” he said with a smile.

He opened the bottle and filled three glasses, mine only half way. We raised our glasses. “To Max and Kate, many years of love and happiness.”

I placed the chickens in the ice-box. Yesterday I was able to buy some carrots and beans at the market that I can sauté and add to rice for a nice side dish. I couldn’t find eggs and milk this week, so we don’t have anything for dessert. No, wait, Mother had hidden some treats in one of the storage boxes. It took a while, but I found a box of Belgian chocolates and hid them in my room to bring out later as a surprise.

“So when do you plan on getting married?” I heard Father ask.

“Monday,” Max said. “With the churches closed we’ll just go to city hall for a civil ceremony.” Max took Kate’s hand, “We don’t really see any reason to put it off. The world is changing constantly and, lately, not for the better. We need to keep moving forward with our lives. You’ll be happy to know--at least I hope you will--that I rented the apartment next door. After Mr. Wozniak’s stroke last month, they had to move in with their daughter. His care was more than Mrs. Wozniak could handle.”

“I like that,” Father replied. “It’ll be good to have you close by.”

I got up to get dinner started. “I’ll help,” Kate said.

As soon as we got into the kitchen, I had to ask Kate the question I was dying to ask.

“Kate, you’re not pregnant, are you? I’m just wondering with the quickie wedding,” I whispered.

Kate laughed. “No, I’m not pregnant. We just don’t see a reason to put off the wedding. Anyway, I don’t think either of us is ready for a baby.”

“What are you two laughing about?” Max asked.

“Nothing,” Kate and I said at the same time, laughing again.

We decided to cook both chickens so we can each have a drumstick. Any leftovers can be reheated for lunch tomorrow. It’s so nice to have fresh meat again, and my rice dish turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself. After dinner I surprised everyone with the box of chocolates. You would have thought we'd never seen chocolate before. This is the best evening we’ve had in quite a while.

Monday morning we went to city hall for the wedding. Kate’s parents were there, and they made us promise to come to their apartment for a special dinner that night. Kate was beautiful in an ivory suit, and her mother had given her a lovely bouquet of assorted roses tied together very tightly in a compact ball of color. They weren’t very fragrant, but I love the colors. Max was wearing his best suit, a brown pinstripe, and looked a little nervous. There are still two more couples ahead of them. Apparently, marriage ceremonies are performed only one day a week, and there’s usually a line. I was glad we arrived early because at least half a dozen couples came in after us.

Finally, it was Max and Kate's turn. Just before we walked into the room I opened my purse and took out my parents' wedding photo. Father smiled when he saw it and put an arm around my shoulders. “Nice,” he said.

Max and Kate walked up to the front of the room, and we sat in the chairs set out for witnesses. The service was short, just the basics, but Kate’s mother cried anyway. Father was holding one of my hands, and in my other hand, I held up the photo, as if Mother were watching the ceremony.

“You may now kiss the bride,” the official said. After the kiss, they signed the marriage certificate and that was it; my brother was a married man. Back out in the hall, Father announced that he had a wedding gift for the happy couple. He scheduled a professional photography session, and we all need to go to the studio now, Kate’s parents as well.

“What a wonderful gift!” Kate’s mother exclaimed. “Will I have time to fix my face when we get there?” she asked, dabbing the last tears from her face.

“I’m sure you will,” Father said with a smile as we headed out.

The photographer took four photos: one of Max and Kate; one with Max, Kate, and her parents; one with Max, Kate, Father, and me; and then one with all six of us. The photos will be ready by Friday. Father ordered three sets. I’ll pick them up Friday afternoon. Afterward, Kate’s parents hugged her as if they were sending her away for a long time. We’ll see them for dinner. I think they're just saying goodbye to their little girl.

“Alright Mom, that’s enough. We’ll see you tonight,” Kate said, finally breaking free.

When we arrived back at the apartment building, Max and Kate went into their apartment, and Father and I went into ours. That seemed strange. We had moved their things into the apartment yesterday, and Kate’s parents donated a few small decorative pieces. They wanted to re-paint the walls before buying any larger furniture items but with the war, there isn’t much of a paint selection available. A light beige color was all they could find. At least that matched everything. A few hours later we all walked over to Kate’s parents for the small dinner party they had thrown together. It was a lovely end to a lovely day.